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Hobohemia and the Crucifixion Machine: Rival Images of a New World in 1930s Vancouver


Capital is dead labor.

— Karl Marx

Fabriks: Studies in the Working Class provides a broad-based forum for labour studies research. Of particular interest are works that challenge familiar national and institutional narratives, focusing instead on gender-based, occupational, racial, and regional divisions among workers and on strategies for fostering working-class solidarity. The series also seeks to resurrect both social class analysis and the view of labour movements as a potentially liberating social force. It invites contributions not only from labour historians but from industrial relations scholars, political scientists, economists, sociologists and social movement theorists, and anyone else whose concerns lie with the history and organization of labour, its philosophical underpinnings, and the struggle for economic and social justice.

The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada

Bob Barnetson

Our Union: UAW/CAW Local 27 from 1950 to 1990

Jason Russell

Hobohemia and the Crucifixion Machine: Rival Images of a New World in 1930s Vancouver

Todd McCallum



Todd McCallum



List of Tables


INTRODUCTION: From Fordlandia to Hobohemia
Homeless Men and the Relief Industry

1 A Strike, a Conference, and a Riot
December 1929 to January 1930

2 “Useless Knowledge” About Jungle Life
The Utopian Practices of Hobohemia, 1930–32

3 The Crucifixion Machine and the Quest for Efficiency
The Relief Industry, Administration

4 The Racket in Tickets and the Traffic in Lives
The Relief Industry, Consumption

5 “Work Without Wages,” or, Paving the Way for Economic Development
The Relief Industry, Production

CONCLUSION: Vancouver, “The Mecca of the Surplus”





1 Length of Residence in Canada, First Survey

2 Length of Residence in Canada, Second Survey

3 Age of Registrants, First Survey

4 Age of Registrants, Second Survey

5 Nationality of Registrants, First Survey

6 Nationality of Registrants, Second Survey

7 Occupation of Registrants, First Survey

8 Cost of Unemployment and Indigent Relief in Vancouver, 1927–38


“Sleep in gentle ease / little eyes shut please, / hear the raindrops in the dark, / hear the neighbour’s doggy bark. / Doggy bit the beggar-man, / tore his coat, away he ran, / to the gate the beggar flees, / sleep in gentle ease.” The first strophe of Taubert’s lullaby is frightening. And yet its two last lines bless sleep with a promise of peace. But this is not entirely due to bourgeois callousness, the comforting knowledge that the intruder has been warded off. The sleepy child has already half forgotten the expulsion of the stranger, who in Schott’s song-book looks like a Jew, and in the line “to the gate the beggar flees” he glimpses peace without the wretchedness of others. So long as there is still a single beggar, Benjamin writes in a fragment, there is still myth; only with the last beggar’s disappearance would myth be appeased. But would not violence then be forgotten as in the child’s drowsiness? Would not, in the end, the disappearance of the beggar make good everything that was ever done to him and can never be made good? Is there not concealed in all persecution by human beings, who, with the little dog, set the whole of nature on the weak, the hope to see effaced the last trace of persecution, which is itself the portion of nature? Would not the beggar, driven out of the gate of civilization, find refuge in his homeland, freed from exile on earth? “Have now peaceful mind, beggar home shall find.”

Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia:
Reflections from a Damaged Life

In this short excerpt, written sometime between 1944 and 1947, Theodor Adorno registers the tragic effects of fifteen years of global depression and war with a horrifying revision of Walter Benjamin’s pre-war dream about the possibility of revolutionary change. The beggar, whose disappearance Benjamin had imagined as a sign of the disappearance of all classes, becomes in Adorno’s wilful misreading a much more complicated figure. In Adorno’s rendering, because the beggar is the target of the violence that must first be done so that myth can achieve the desired result, sleep comes to the child only by first remembering and then forgetting the hurts inflicted upon the homeless man in the shadows. This process is made all the easier by articulating the man’s poverty with the appearances of racial inferiority.2 Effectively effaced and made an abstract figure, yet still all too human in his ability to experience pain, Adorno’s beggar is necessary to the functioning of the whole, not because he can work but because he can suffer, allowing the rest of us to remember, and then forget, and then sleep.

Adorno manages to find a kernel of utopian content in this nursery rhyme by proposing that the bourgeois dream of physically expelling each and every beggar from the whole would, in reality, “make good everything that was ever done to him and can never be made good.”3 In his mind, justice for each individual historical act of persecution is an impossible goal since the very act of calculating an equivalent punishment would make one “the mouthpiece, against a bad world, of one even worse.”4 Nonetheless, Adorno still imagines that the beggar could inflict severe damage by accepting his removal from “civilization,” thereby allowing its citizens to stamp out within themselves the only remaining “portion of nature” yet to succumb to rationalization. In this logic, it is only outside of this society — now left alone with its dialectic of enlightenment, where Hitler or Hollywood represented the only choice that remained — that the abject beggar finally “glimpses peace without the wretchedness of others”: “Have now peaceful mind, beggar home shall find.”

Regrettably, in our present context, Adorno’s final question — “Would not the beggar, driven out of the gate of civilization, find refuge in his homeland, freed from exile on earth?” — originates in a kind of curiosity about the possibilities of a utopia that most Canadian historians have learned to leave behind, an occasional object of, but not a guide to, critical historical practice. I offer in this book’s opening chapters an excursus into the beggar’s “homeland,” doing so as something of an antidote to this contemporary historiographic departure away from utopia’s long-standing attractions.

This is not to say that my account will be entirely unfamiliar to Canadian historians. Beginning with chapter 3, my interpretive journey follows paths of inquiry that should be easily understood within the framework of conventional Canadian writing on the period. If my account of the changing character of relief governance and provision pertaining to single homeless men in Vancouver and British Columbia in the early years of the Great Depression sits comfortably within established appreciations of the inadequacies of the state response to the collapsing social formation of the 1930s, I nonetheless destabilize the usual narrative somewhat by introducing two key concepts: Michel Foucault’s “governmentality” and Theodor Adorno’s “rationalization.” This theoretical intervention allows us to grasp more fully how mass need and the market collapse quickly overwhelmed Vancouver’s Relief Department. The result was a crisis recognizable throughout the municipality and, to a lesser extent, in the governing chambers of Victoria and Ottawa.

It is my contention that the increasing number of people who distanced themselves from business methods in the face of the obvious contradictions manifesting themselves in the streets can best be situated historically and understood in our own times through an excavation of that long-buried utopian challenge posed by “Hobohemia” against capitalist Fordism. This is why I introduce this study with the real lives of homeless men, the forms of resistance mounted by the jobless, and the social alternatives that germinated in the hobo jungles of Vancouver from 1930 to 1932.

Minorities, of course, make history. The minority that might have remade Canadian history in its utopian image, the builders of Hobohemia, did not, in the end, prevail, although, as I show, they built much in a particular time and place. A smaller but more influential minority looked to the ledger sheet to find the principles of order and governance that might save Vancouver from financial ruin and political riot. This latter group, which included many business leaders, media magnates, religious activists, and social work professionals, sought a way out of the Great Depression. Their view of the chaos precipitated in the dirtiest years of the 1930s differed markedly from the perceptions circulating among the workless and homeless men, whose presence in shantytowns and on street corners caused them considerable anxiety. This minority took from the corporate world a preference for the rationalized social relationships theorized by Frederick Winslow Taylor and made both viable and visible on a mass scale by Henry Ford. Their reorganization of the core practices of relief administration and provision using the leading ideas of North American capitalism created what might be termed “forms of Fordist governmentality” across British Columbia, traces of which we can sense around us still. One part of their original purpose was to vanquish the beggars at their doors, a historical act of violence that ushered into being its own mythologies.



From Fordlandia to Hobohemia

What are the perils of jungle and prairie compared to the daily shocks and conflicts of civilization?

Charles Baudelaire, Oeuvres1

This book tells the story of the creation of two worlds: one we know well, having lived there for what seems like forever, while the other we know hardly at all, having forgotten how to cultivate its growth. The first of these worlds — the truly globalizing condition of permanent siege known as Fordism, under which the “scientific” combination of mass production and mass consumption techniques produced the explosive economic and state growth that characterized the “short twentieth century” — started with Henry Ford himself:

In our new laboratory building at Dearborn we partitioned off a corner which gives a ballroom big enough for seventy couples.… We are all getting a great deal of fun out of dancing. We have our dancing classes two nights a week, and everyone has to learn to dance in absolutely the correct way, for a fine part of the old dancing was its deportment. The rules are followed.…The instructions are all in the manual we have had written.

No one objects to the formality. They like it as a change from the casualness which is so often rudeness.… Our complete repertoire is fourteen dances — the two-step, the circle two-step, the waltz, … and so on through the infinite variety of combinations. These dances have to be danced! There is no improvisation of steps.

We are not, as has been imagined, conducting any kind of crusade against modern dancing. We are merely dancing in the way that gives us the most pleasure.2

It is tempting to read Ford’s testimonial to the pleasure he and others found in the rationalization of dancing — which took up three pages of his 1926 classic, Today and Tomorrow — as an exemplary instance of Fordist practice. Governed by rules (naturally written down in advance) that legislated every exacting movement and yet promised (theoretically, at least) “infinite variety,” the dance floor in Ford’s Dearborn, Michigan, laboratory shared much with the shop floor next door, and over time, Ford’s directives would be shared with dance floors across North America. By 1943, the printed instruction manual was in its fourth edition and promised to “preserve all that is characteristic and traditional in these dances, at the same time making the descriptions as clear and concise as possible.” 3 This manual captured something essential of the “structure of feeling” of Ford’s brand of scientific management: his pleasure technicians rationalized “the old dances” and enabled their repetition time and again in an ever-expanding variety of locales by using sheet music, printed verse, and various types of pictograms to analytically fragment and reassemble each ensemble of physical acts along instrumentalist lines. The technicians thus separated the good from the bad — the former comprising elements branded “characteristic and traditional” and the latter, elements that confounded a “clear and concise” pedagogical process.

Ford’s marriage of mass production and mass consumption, his centralization of work planning, and his extension of managerial control beyond the factory doors promised to create “a new kind of rationalized, modernist, and populist democratic society,” in the words of geographer David Harvey. Harvey emphasizes the central importance of state intervention via the 1930s New Deal in creating and recreating the preconditions for the socialization of Fordist practices. At the same time, he underlines the unevenness of this process in the interwar years, arguing that only through “myriad individual, corporate, institutional, and state decisions, many of them unwitting political choices or knee-jerk responses to the crisis tendencies of capitalism, particularly as manifest in the great depression of the 1930s,” did Fordism become the dominant logic of the North American social formation.4 It was inevitable that Fordism would acquire (indeed, mass produce) much symbolism. For some, it was represented by the stopwatch, the much-hated tool of white-shirted scientific managers.5 Nothing captures this loathing better than John Dos Passos’s biting characterization of the death of American industrial efficiency champion Frederick Winslow Taylor from pneumonia: “He was dead with his watch in his hand.” 6 There were other symbols: the assembly line of Chaplin’s Modern Times, the fantastic fins of post-war Cadillacs, and the bulk-built boxes of the suburbs, exposed by Dan Graham’s photographic lens. Each inescapably captured the core values of the emergent structure of feeling: standardization, massification, and, above all, rationalization.7

And Fordism could not be contained by national or even continental borders. “Fordismus” swept through Germany before the war, while the French would have to wait until after that conflict had ended and the next had begun.8 For our purposes, the most telling endeavour associated with the name was Ford’s own keenly ambitious, spectacular failure known as Fordlandia, the company’s veritable colony deep in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon.9 In an attempt to break the British cartel in the rubber industry in the early 1920s, Ford’s minions ventured into the untamed wilderness and attempted to transplant and cultivate what Marxists call a totality — in this case, one predicated on the notion of an organic, traditional American way of life no longer viable in America itself.10 From the latest production techniques to modern health care and housing, which many Americans would have envied, Ford’s undertaking sought to eradicate some of the limits to capital accumulation on a global scale while deigning to provide racial uplift in Brazil as it did in America.11 After all, why limit yourself to encouraging village industries when you could create the perfect village instead? That this very orderly project created copious amounts of untrammelled chaos through its dramatic transformation of social relations in the rainforest led historian Greg Grandin to conclude, “Fordlandia is indeed a parable of arrogance. The arrogance, though, is not that Henry Ford thought he could tame the Amazon, but that he believed that the forces of capitalism, once released, could still be contained.” 12 While Fordlandia itself lay in ruins following a 1930 riot, the complex set of social practices embodied by the name thrived elsewhere, taking possession of so much held dear around the globe to the extent that there is nothing left to be returned.

The second world explored in this book, that of utopia, has no fixed address or permanent location, which makes it difficult to conceive of it as a world at all. Indeed, in many respects, we have become not post- but pre-utopian: in many quarters, it is no longer enough to dismiss the utopian because we must act as if it never even existed in the first place. Its elusiveness can be traced not only to the unremittingly hostile social formation in which it must take root but also to the contradictions within utopian projects themselves.13 Nonetheless, as Fredric Jameson argues in his widely influential 1979 article, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” utopian practice has become ritualistic, a daily occurrence, if only fleetingly so, for all of us surrounded by mass culture. It is thus helpful to set aside Thomas More’s original definition of utopia as “no place” and instead recognize that utopia is every place: the question we are compelled to ask is when. In our context, against the global generalization of Fordlandia over the short twentieth century, I have counterpoised a much less glorious narrative concerning the rise and fall of Hobohemia: while the jungles of Brazil threw up obstacles to Fordism’s spread, the jungles of British Columbia — islands of non-capitalist, non-statist social practice — became something of an outside within Fordism, parasitically drawing from its creation of surplus value to create a homeland for a surplus population.

This book explores the history of the archetypal single transient homeless man as he could be found in British Columbia over the course of three years, from the Great Crash in October 1929 to the assumption of federal control over the bulk of British Columbia’s provincial relief camp system in November 1932. It is primarily concerned with conveying the effects engendered across the social order by the “transient,” as masses of individual bodies daily seeking food, shelter, and other commodities; as a collective figure in the political imaginary of those tasked with administering relief to these bodies; and as the core constituency of a mass movement that periodically sought to transform, if not overturn, this order. More modestly, I hope to add to our all-too-meagre understanding of the itinerant unemployed man on his own, away from authority figures and off with others of his kind — on the streets, in boxcars, and in jungles. From dozens of nations the world over, tens of thousands of mobile men travelled to and through Vancouver, where — to put it plainly — they made history, even if they did not always make it exactly as they would have chosen and even if what they made did not necessarily last long.

Divorced both financially and physically from the factories, forests, fields, and other places where a wage could be earned, innumerable men with no fixed address and no productive property to call their own founded and built hobo jungles in which emerged a new admixture of older forms of exchange, sociability, and culture — material and otherwise — that owed their existence to practices that had served tramps well in the pre-war period. And whether in the jungles, on the road, or in the cities, their very existence appeared to generate a perpetual “state of emergency” for the broader polity.14 In Vancouver, their presence caused Vancouver’s relief and police departments to proclaim crises at regular intervals; indeed, the former more or less admitted defeat in the wake of thousands of transients. Elected officials, too, felt their wrath: more than one City Council member saw his or her career in officialdom dashed upon the rocks of itinerant intransigence, and more than any other factor, transients were responsible for bringing down the sitting premier, Conservative Simon Fraser Tolmie, generating such instability so as to make the Conservative Party an irrelevant institution in British Columbia for decades. Of course, their accomplishments were limited: they could not, after all, substitute direct democracy for the parliamentary process.

Theory and Argument

Theoretically speaking, this book is a sustained argument for social history and what might be called the “epistemic independence of the oppressed.” 15 Yet it is also something decidedly more, in that I have sought, wherever possible, to deny — indeed, to provisionally erase — the long-standing “epistemic independence” available to oppressors in a host of politico-theoretical frameworks across the spectrum. Liberal, feminist, postmodern, Marxist, and so on: regardless of allegiance, we find analogous analytical forms that situate the subaltern on the margins, where they do not act but react, where they are made into subjects, bestowed with identities, disciplined and regulated within an inch of their lives. More to the point, much of Canadian leftist and social history has become inward-looking and self-congratulatory.16 This process, one scholar has argued, is an inevitable result of the “overproduction” of history, the need to carve out new markets for scholarship.17 The ethical sensibility that saturated the early productions of social history — the fundamental connection between historical writers and actors — has metamorphosed into a more ironic, pessimistic sense of detachment from the subjects we study. Our post-humanist sophistications clash with the explicitly humanist elements of social history, whether methodological, theoretical, or political. Here, I have reversed the traditional flow of history from rulers to ruled, both as a conceptual exercise and because the extant evidence demands that I do so. Here, we will situate the relief industry in the shadow of homeless men’s lives.

This book offers four arguments concerning the past and one concerning Canada’s progress as one of many branch plants of the Anglo-American “Theoryworld.” 18 First, the mass need engendered by the crisis of the early 1930s led to the emergence of a distinct socio-economic order embodied in hobo jungles, communities that were parasitic upon and yet never fully integrated into the wider liberal capitalist social formation. The jungles of the early twentieth century were characterized by an “ethic of reciprocity and mutualism” rooted in “unapologetic rejections of acquisitivism,” to quote American historian Todd DePastino.19 Frank Tobias Higbie, another American scholar, extends the argument, citing the “transient mutuality” that was forged in contexts of “social marginalization” as an important “marker of community among migrants and between migrants and nonmigrants who chose to help them.” 20 In the early 1930s, the social practices with which unemployed homeless men sustained themselves on the road and in the jungle owed much to a similar internal moral economy predicated upon mutuality and reciprocity.21 Through a variety of activities — begging and borrowing, foraging and stealing, working and collecting relief from government and private charities — tramps acquired resources, which they then distributed among their fellow tramps in the recognition that tomorrow, someone else would rustle up food and other necessities.

Jungle life was only periodically labour intensive and, especially in the peak years of the crisis, rarely involved waged work. Just as important, in the jungles themselves, the monetary value of these goods as commodities mattered little, and the exchange was usually conducted face to face, without recourse to a medium such as money. Neither paper nor writing, in fact, appears to have had a role in the internal governance of jungle life. Social relations tended to be immediate and relatively consensual, conducted in contexts in which neither capital accumulation through the exploitation of other people’s labour nor the imprisoning of those considered criminals or moral offenders could become an ongoing, systematic concern. There is, in short, no state here, no administrative body (centralized or decentralized) that we can identify as having established juridical, legislative, disciplinary, or regulatory functions. Although these road-based communities were never free of conflict, hierarchies within them owed little to the acquisitive individualism of laissez-faire liberalism or the abstract notion of “rights” of the liberal-democratic state.

Second, as thousands of itinerants moved from the jungles to the city, filling the cafés, flophouses, and shelters, and swelling the streets, they made innumerable demands upon Vancouver’s Relief Department, consuming resources at a rate that threatened the municipality with bankruptcy. To save their city from financial ruin, those who embraced the ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford unleashed a new reorganization on Vancouver’s Relief Department. The changes were extensive: a new card-control system was employed and the tasks of investigation and assessment were separated, with new procedures formalized for both. This new system of knowledge production translated applicants into faceless textual objects, stripped of all traces of individuality in order to rationalize and standardize treatment. Yet they were not Fordism’s only victims: the Relief Department staff — those who laboured so that tramps could be fed, clothed, and housed — had their own experience of scientific management. Employees found themselves singled out for efficiency tests, and the “speed-up” of the investigation process was accompanied by a network of office spies detailed to collect information about co-workers for the “Crucifixion Machine,” the name bestowed by one disgruntled investigator upon the host of punitive sanctions for those judged inefficient. The economic crisis thus occasioned state formation on a scale that had rarely been seen in Canada save in times of war, a process that is best understood as a moment in the primitive accumulation of Fordist forms of governance.22

Third, most histories of unemployment in the 1930s are predicated upon the conceptual separation of business and the state, and thus focus their enquiries on the obvious political dimensions of entitlement to government aid. As a consequence, however, we lack a critical understanding of the extent to which relief provision was inseparable from capitalist social relations broadly conceived. In other words, while relief is typically associated with use value — the provision of goods and services as determined by human need rather than market mechanisms — the archives suggest a different portrait, one of exchange value and of exploitation. To provide transients with food, shelter, and clothing, Vancouver’s municipal government entered into contractual relationships with dozens of private businesses, tendering bids for meals in much the same fashion as for printing jobs and construction projects; the sizeable number of entrepreneurs who clamoured to get their share of this state spending testifies to the profits that could be made by providing charity. Here, too, we see the influence of Fordist ideas in the preferential treatment that the Relief Department accorded to those businesses able to effect economies of scale in order to reduce the relief budget. In this way, the 1930s witnessed the emergence of a relief industry grafted upon already existing relations of production, distribution, and consumption. However, this was not a free market for everyone involved: under this system, homeless men were refused cash and instead given tickets or scrip, which they could exchange for commodities and services such as clothing or a night’s shelter at a host of state-approved businesses. Because relief policies sought to remove the jobless man from the free market of consumption in order to deny him the ability to make the moral choices that came with hard currency, they also prompted the emergence of a powerful protest movement, dominated in the main by Communist-led organizations, such as the National Unemployed Workers Association, that asserted a program of consumer rights and relief in cash. In so doing, they would find willing allies in the form of small-business owners denied relief business because they were unable to effect savings through economies of scale.

Fourth, in exchange for relief, thousands of homeless men paid with the only currency available to them, their labour, as they were forced into the carceral archipelago of work camps created by the Government of British Columbia. The relief camp system would literally pave the way for the generalization of Fordism by developing a network of roads and airports to facilitate the transportation of natural resources and manufactured goods. Officials believed that once the crisis had passed and the unemployed migrant worker was reabsorbed into industry, the camps could be rented out as resorts, thus enabling a boom in the tourist-driven image economy. It is my contention that work relief needs to be recognized as a distinct form of unfree labour. If we strip away the label of “work relief,” we find thousands of men in situations that were in many respects identical to those they would encounter as “free” wage workers. In fact, as a result of the government’s decision to rent then-empty logging camps owned by a cabinet member, some itinerants found themselves living in the same logging camps and listening to the orders of the same foremen as when they had previously worked for wages. Yet the political distinction between free and relief labour produced a living contradiction, the “unemployed worker” who worked for a living — not for wages, but for relief. It was precisely this identity between past and present that spawned a host of campaigns to oppose the labour camps. The most radical critique of work relief came from Communist groups, like the National Unemployed Workers Association, that recognized that the coercive context of economic need forced thousands of transients to participate in a new form of sweated labour. Eventually, the particular form of exploitation found in work relief programs led to the emergence of the most significant protest movement in 1930s-era Canada, the On-to-Ottawa Trek led by the Relief Camp Workers’ Union.

Finally, in its combination of subject matter and interpretation, this account differs from the existing historiography of the Great Depression. In part, this difference is theoretical. I have drawn extensively from the following schools of thought (which are now also segments of the market): the research on rationalization conducted in the 1930s and 1940s by Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Siegfried Kracauer of the Frankfurt School; Michel Foucault’s writings on sexuality, disciplinary power, and, especially, madness; and the oeuvre of E.P. Thompson and R.W. Connell, the latter being imaginatively understood as the socialist-feminist half-brother of the former.23 Indeed, the experiential epistemological break that initiated this project was my 1993 reading of the script for Laura Kipnis’s stunning 1985 film, Ecstasy Unlimited: The Interpenetrations of Sex and Capital, which combines all of these schools of thought and more in a materialist-feminist exercise in estrangement and transcendence.24

If theory moved me in different directions than those that are commonplace in conventional historical treatments, so too did my pursuit of the available evidence challenge me to follow different analytic routes. This project had its origins in a dissertation first sketched out at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, in the 1990s. My subject had a certain coherence: a social history of homeless men from the Great Crash of 1929 through to Bloody Sunday, 1938. The initial written plan followed a fairly orthodox chronology: commencing with the crash in 1929, the thesis then proposed to outline the experience of the homeless in the urban jungles (1931); the provincial and federal relief camps (1932–33 and 1933–35); and the mobilizations associated with the On-to-Ottawa Trek (1935), the Spanish Civil War (1936–38), and the Post Office sit-downs (1938). In addition, thematic chapters on communism, race, masculinity, and sexuality were envisioned. It all seemed so straightforward, with beginnings and ends that could be recognized as self-evident, some of this history even having been written about by the likes of Pierre Berton.

The archives put an end to all this. Everywhere I turned in the records of municipal and provincial governments, as well as in archives of private individuals and organizations, people spoke of the economics of relief provision, of the parallels (if not the identity) between the state and private industry, and of the crisis in value surrounding them. These stories are highly suggestive of the normalization of capitalist social relations. This did not mean that those who produced these records accepted the classical capital-labour form as much as they expected it: relief provision was experienced as a market relationship by every group involved, and in these early years, market mechanisms of exchange became a fundamental measure of value, both for goods and services and for the lives of the jobless. All of this has added up to what is perhaps best called a “mode of production” history, centred on the practices and processes of commodification and rationalization. This only served to heighten my awareness of an existing utopian alternative to these processes.

It is inevitable that histories of the Great Depression, whether popular or professorial, are saturated with talk of economics. It is difficult to imagine them otherwise. Yet our focus on the forest of the global unemployment crisis has prevented us from seeing the trees — the basic market relations that, taken as a whole, formed what might be termed the “relief industry.” Much ink has been spilled discussing the nature of the modern welfare state. By and large, interpretations derived from liberal political philosophy situate the state as the arbiter of the contending positions of different interest groups and as the guarantor of social order. This state is not monolithic in these accounts: intergovernmental conflicts remain an attractive subject.25 Scholars have also noted the quest for stability and security that motivated the development of policy. Along with the increase in Keynesian forms of spending, social policy like contributory unemployment insurance aimed at limiting the severity, if not the occurrence, of cyclical economic downturns.26 While some scholars explore the direct ties between the business community and various levels of government, and thus the subsequent absence of genuine reform policies during the 1930s, others emphasize the coming to power of politicians who challenged the traditions of laissez-faire competitive capitalism and the “night watchman” state.27 More recently, the welfare state has been conceptualized as an ensemble of techniques of social and moral regulation. The male breadwinner model of provision and the policing of women’s experiences in both public and private spheres has been at the heart of the welfare state.28 Finally, a number of historians, in order to explain the broad structural transformations entailed by the rapid expansion of welfare programs, have taken up Marxist ideas about the “relative autonomy” of the state and its “decommodified” role in developing the infrastructure for accumulation.29 While each of these interpretations has produced much of value, each is premised upon the separation of government and business.30 In other words, they shed little light on how state activities such as relief provision could not exist outside of capitalist social relations broadly conceived.31

Because of the differences in approach, I have not devoted much space to a detailed demonstration of the myriad ways in which my interpretation clashes with the historiography of the transient, of relief administration, and of the era more generally. This I have done out of a profound respect for the literature: the Canadian historiography of the 1930s is too thoughtful, too interesting, and too politically engaged to warrant dismissing it because a single author steps outside its boundaries. Also, at this moment, I am hopeful that I can initiate a discussion about the significance of the commodification process — what I call capitalogic — rather than end one, and in the current climate, where Marxist criticism is all too often caricatured, I prefer to adopt a passive approach. In taking up the dialectical approach that Fredric Jameson labels “metacommentary,” this book is premised on the incorporation and reworking of the existing literature rather than its rejection.32 Thus, save in those cases where Canadian interpretations pose an obstacle to the adequate comprehension of a particular context, I have eschewed lengthy critical engagement and opted instead to focus my theoretical attentions on the works of the Frankfurt School and Michel Foucault, as is detailed below.

Definitions and Delineations

Let us turn to the first important methodological matter at hand, that of definitions. While everyone knows that Chicago’s greatest accomplishment is to have provided the soil in which urban blues could flourish, I like to think that second on the list would be its role as the “Main Stem” for migrant workers. In this not unrelated development, birth was given to a host of classification systems designed to come to terms with the realities of life on the road. Ben Reitman, one of America’s better known tramps, settled upon a tripartite scheme. “There are three types of the genus vagrant,” he explained. “The hobo, the tramp and the bum. The hobo works and wanders, the tramp dreams and wanders, and the bum drinks and wanders.” 33 St. John Tucker, one-time president of Chicago’s Hobo College, refined Reitman’s categories, arguing that “a hobo is a migratory worker. A tramp is a migratory non-worker. A bum is a stationary non-worker.” 34 Turning on notions of employment and mobility, these designations were far from arbitrary. Nicholas Klein, another president of the college, issued a warning to those who would confuse these distinct groups:

A hobo is one who travels in search of work, the migratory worker who must go about to find employment.… The tramp is one who travels but does not work, and a bum is a man who stays in one place and does not work. Between these grades there is a great gulf of social distinction. Don’t get tramps and hobos mixed. They are quite different in many respects. The chief difference being that the hobo will work and the tramp will not, preferring to live on what he can pick up at back doors as he makes his way through the country.35

By and large, this tripartite system of classification became the standard. Nels Anderson’s The Hobo, which captured the imagination of the sociological marketplace, employed it with a few modifications.36 In short, by the beginning of the Great Depression, self-generated itinerant systems of thought had been prominently incorporated into the most expert of expert studies produced under the auspices of the Chicago School of sociology.

This classification of the three types of propertyless migrants makes a good deal of sense, but I have not followed it, largely because of uncooperative evidence. Whether public or private, relief agencies rarely employed these distinctions. True, some officials knew of this literature and believed in its relevance.37 They did not, however, rely on it in their day-to-day work of administration. Nor do archival records contain information sufficient to allow the historian to move beyond speculation as to the specific identity of individual itinerants. Itinerant writers did on occasion discuss the differences within their community, but such texts are few and far between. Most important, the economic crisis of the 1930s fundamentally transformed these categories. No longer could a hobo be defined as one who “works and wanders,” since work was difficult to find. Instead, the difference between hobo and tramp became that of the expressed willingness to work. Given the collapse in the market for unskilled labour, it is well-nigh impossible to sort homeless men on relief into those who worked and those who dreamed. As a consequence, I use the terms itinerant, hobo, and tramp interchangeably to refer to all those who travelled in search of work or relief, or those who attempted to live without either during the 1930s.

This book examines men, provided we understand that category to include anyone who successfully passed as a man in the context under study.38 Most of the individuals for whom there are records are of indeterminate racial, ethnic, and national origin; I have foregone subjecting the available information to much analysis because of the tentative, fungible character of assertions of such identities in a context where discrimination was assumed to be (indeed, demanded as) the norm, and where deportation proceedings could await the hapless applicant for relief. There is also considerable ambiguity about the marital status of those under examination; without information to the contrary, I have considered them to be unattached, a term that includes men who deserted families and those who intentionally separated themselves from the family unit as a survival strategy.39 To be homeless, a person had to lack a fixed residence, which included those who declared the jungles their home as well as thousands of propertyless men who periodically received relief from public and private charities in Vancouver. This latter group should be considered homeless because of the absence of a long-term residence. They might have known that they had a week’s worth of lodging tickets; beyond that, the future was uncertain. The nature of the extant archival records can but frustrate the historian. All too often, we can know nothing of the situation of these itinerants, save for the fact that they were thought to be single and homeless. As a consequence, there is a certain homogeneity in my treatment of their history. It is regretted; it cannot be avoided.

Another term of great relevance to this study is transient, the central administrative category in the governance of relief programs for homeless and jobless unattached men. Here, I have retained the distinction between the “transient population” — a complex and yet carefully delimited group produced in the course of relief administration — and the larger and ever-changing cohort of itinerant men who lived on the roads and in the jungles — the other “population” of interest here. Due to the political process, the former was subject to much redefinition in ways that the latter was not. Indeed, as we will see, “transient” was a category flexible enough to include those who had never left the city limits. As well, I want to note the difference between the actually existing transient population (i.e., the statistically definable group of men administered as transients) and the category’s ideal type as dictated in departmental policy documents. To move from starting point — the rules and regulations governing the production of the “transient” — to end result — the people who came to be classified as such on a day-to-day basis — required much work, and the small group of civic officials tasked with the job often went into the field poorly equipped. Then again, we might well wonder if their task was manageable under the best of conditions: what kind of technology could have allowed them to begin a census of a community of substantial size and yet whose very constituents embodied modernity’s state of perpetual flux?40 In fact, in British Columbia, the extant data about the transient population are best seen as evidence of one of the weaknesses of the local state: its almost total inability to make visible and legible the internal workings of these jungle-based communities, regardless of what one hypothesized these to be. On the West Coast, state officials could typically only work on these communities from the outside, rarely piercing the spatial and cognitive boundaries that would enable knowledge production and the exercise of power from within.

In general, my discussion of itinerants and transients is of a different type than that which analyzes the intersectionality of the four categories of the social history apocalypse: sexuality, gender, race, and class. Simply put, the extant evidence did not allow me to address many of the subjects that I had initially planned to study. For instance, nothing I have read would allow me to construct any argument about gender and racial relations among the itinerants and transients, let alone the kind of careful, sensitive arguments offered by American historians such as DePastino and Higbie, and Canadians such as Cecilia Danysk.41 Before beginning primary research, I had hoped to write something of a sequel to my earlier work on masculinity and the One Big Union, the revolutionary industrial union movement that vowed to build utopia with the hands of the itinerant workingman.42 The archives, however, proved a disappointment. Gender and sexual politics were clearly fundamental to relief provision writ large as an organizing principle for the division of applicants into administrative categories that, in turn, governed not only the end result — the commodities received, if any — but the entire process from start to finish. Yet they appear to have disappeared once that initial ideological work was complete. In the period under examination, the fall of 1929 until November of 1932, assumptions about male identities and abilities did not shape relief provision in a systematic manner. Even the Communist Unemployed Worker, which I had assumed would be a fount of references to manhood, offered me next to nothing on which to hang an analysis in comparison to the radical papers of earlier periods. Over the course of 1932, however, this changed dramatically. As thousands of itinerants were relocated from the cities, and as the worsening economy began to affect residents, and as thousands of these residents created block and neighbourhood councils, raided grocery stores, and swarmed the offices of the Relief Department, gender and sexual politics became fundamental to shaping all aspects of the crisis.43 Since the 1960s, Vancouver historians have called for and implemented a shift from the itinerant single male to the family as the weightiest force in shaping local politics.44 But in isolating a small piece of the history of the transient as a first step in a project designed to map Vancouver’s 1930s, I felt safe in returning to the single transient man without fear of undermining the gendered histories of the period already written, to my mind among the best recent scholarship on the Great Depression in Canada.45

The Mecca of the Surplus

As a point of origin into the lives of homeless transients, Vancouver has a rich history that is of considerable value. Unfortunately, this rich history comes at a cost paid long ago in the form of mass suffering, experienced not as an abstract, continuous state of being but as millions upon millions of acts, the discontinuous and cumulative effects of which the term alienation can hardly begin to convey. Per capita income in British Columbia decreased by almost 50 percent from 1929 to 1933. A census taken in June 1931 revealed that one-third of those who had worked in manufacturing, two-thirds of those in construction, and one-quarter of those in transportation were unemployed at that time.46 British Columbia also had higher jobless rates in every employment category in the federal census than any other region in Canada.47 Seasonal unemployment, especially in the resource industries, soared to new heights: 58 percent of unskilled working men reported being unemployed for six months or more in 1930–31.48 There is no context in which these few figures add up to anything pleasant: evidently, the early 1930s in Vancouver saw much suffering surrounded by a surfeit of surplus stock.

That Vancouver was also a traditional resting point for migrant workers and other wanderers also helped guarantee that the city would see hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of “boxcar tourists” over the course of the decade. In addition to the network of employment agencies, hotels, restaurants, flophouses, and poolrooms geared to serving workingmen during the winter off-season, Vancouver was also home to numerous organizations concerned with unemployment that offered transients material support and sociability. For a group that is still largely hidden from history, Vancouver’s archives contain a treasured abundance of source material on the daily struggles of unemployed homeless men, both as individuals and en masse, to gain access to the means of life. The expansive nature of records concerning the economic relationships through which relief was provided allows us to articulate the relations of production, distribution, and consumption that made up the relief industry. We are also able to explore in detail the processes of abstraction and rationalization that swept through the Relief Department with the introduction of a Fordist managerial regime. The archives thus provide us with the possibility of a deeper understanding of the social relations that we traditionally label “relief.”

Chapter 1 explores a period that is normally viewed as the first serious phase of the Great Depression, December 1929 and January 1930. All of the elements associated with the better-known conflicts of the mid-1930s are present in these opening months: the growth of mass need, the miserly policies of municipal administrators, Communist-led organizations of the unemployed, public conferences on unemployment insurance, and street battles between the police and jobless crowds. Yet the politics of this period are not those of the dramatic confrontations waged on the streets of Vancouver in 1935. In fact, in the Depression’s first winter, most people involved in the public debate agreed that unemployment was a significant social problem that could only be solved through federal intervention and the enshrining in legislation of basic welfare state measures such as unemployment insurance. Instead, the real battle lay in the realm of relief provision — the specific social relationships through which poor men and women sustained themselves. Here, there was no consensus, only chaos. What was the minimum standard of living that could justly be accorded to those on relief? What form should this relief take? Who was responsible for transients? And how could they be stopped in their tracks and prevented from becoming an obstacle sufficient to halt Vancouver’s progress as a city in a world that included more and more of them?

In chapter 2, we enter the refuge for the homeless that I have called Hobohemia, imagined as a combination of what Michel Foucault calls “heterotopias” and what Karl Marx labelled “the realm of freedom.” British Columbia’s hobo jungles are best understood as a non-contiguous homeland fashioned by an ever-changing population of men physically separated from domestic and industrial sites of capitalist production and reproduction. Spread across the province at locations usually close to transportation networks, the jungles housed a mobile, provisional cohort of residents who, in their daily actions, asserted a claim to physical property and to social relations that were non-hierarchical, non-statist, and non-capitalist, to define them against the commonly accepted norms of modern life in Canada. What made the jungles a homeland, an actual physical space distinct from the Canadian nation-state and populated by an identifiable group whose members would never all meet, is also what made them a non-state. These wanderers were united not through any form of juridical right or familial relation, any bond of political affiliation or personal allegiance, or any claim grounded in identitarian thinking, but rather through the methods with which they organized the acquisition of the means of life: to live in the jungles may have required the acquisition of new skills, but it did not mandate a new mentality. Moreover, no documents, no oaths, no military service or forced labour were present in these temporary settlements, whose borders were as mobile as its residents. Indeed, where the jungle way of life ended cannot be definitively settled, and we may want to posit the boxcar as a liminal space, somewhere between Hobohemia and Fordlandia. In short, across the province thrived an archipelago of mobile islands of utopian practice within, but still separate from, the rationalized world of state and capital. While the land they occupied had been subject to certain juridical claims, the actual presence of authority, whether in public or private form, was periodic and weak. On this land, thousands of men lived without any of the trappings of the modern state and without a formalized capitalist market that governed exchanges of goods and services. One was free to participate in this mode of organizing life, and one was free to leave.

We can borrow for Hobohemia Fredric Jameson’s characterization of “utopian enclaves,” imaginatively devised blueprints of the future that, in their present-day context of creation, act as “something like a foreign body within the social: in them, the differentiation process has momentarily been arrested, so that they remain as it were momentarily beyond the reach of the social and testify to its political powerlessness, at the same time that they offer a space in which new wish images of the social can be elaborated and experimented on.” 49 Over the course of several years, this archipelago of squatters’ settlements was widely understood and acted upon by people arrayed across the political spectrum and the social body as if it embodied, indeed was home to, a different way of life. In fact, the itinerant as a species ultimately proved a significant obstacle to the efficient and accountable governance, acting as that which was always irreducible, unassimilable by the established order. By taking this division as my point of entry into tramping history, I hope to reconnect with whatever historical forces enabled Boxcar Bertha to say, “I have always known strange people, vagrants, hoboes, both males and females. I don’t remember when I didn’t know about wanderers, prostitutes, revolutionists.” 50

Chapter 3 begins the discussion of what I have called the “relief industry.” Like any market-oriented set of social relations, the exchange of value was the crux of commodification of the relief industry. In order to receive food and shelter, unemployed people unable to secure support outside of official charity institutions first had to offer something to the investigator. On occasion, this meant manual labour, but in every case, the jobless were obliged to offer information about their lives and a pledge of loyalty to the regime of private property and the tenets of the work ethic. They would not lie about their personal history. Nor would they steal. They would look for work and take whatever job was available. These oaths were often set out in a written agreement, although oral pledges were taken during those moments when the demand for relief far exceeded the administration’s ability to thoroughly process each case.51 With these guarantees secured, relief could then be exchanged.52 In caring for the unemployed, both government and private charities operated in a similar fashion. They assigned a value to each jobless man and woman — sometimes individually, but more often with blanket categorizations like “single transient unemployed man” — which translated into a certain amount and type of goods and services. Value, in these thousands of cases, was largely determined by the calculations of relief administrators: this was an exchange in which one party clearly had more authority than the other. In this sense, relief is not just a history of giving. It is also a history of taking.

The intertwining of economic and disciplinary logics in the daily workings of the Relief Department calls into question the boundary that historians use to separate “the state” from “the market” and suggests instead lines of inquiry that can register Fordism’s wide-reaching yet partial transformation of the practices of governmentality in the context of the transient crisis. While Vancouver’s appears to have been the only municipal relief department to turn to Fordism in the dark days of the early 1930s as a solution to the relief problem, the path taken by the Relief Department was not altogether a strange one. By that date, millions of North Americans had already participated in rationalization of some form or another — labouring on the assembly line and in the home, going to Family Court or the doctor, shopping in the department stores and participating in mass-market surveys, and watching the movie screen in a crowded theatre.53 Our specific case exists at a conjuncture of two historiographies of rationalization, that of charity administration and that of the modern office in the age of scientific management.54 Since the war, white-collar workers across Canada had found themselves subject to new workplace regimes premised upon increased labour efficiency, cost reduction and cost certainty, and the ability of managers to measure and regulate work processes.55 A plethora of arguments about the benefits of efficiency circulated among private charity providers, some of whom believed that modern management techniques could reform those in need more economically and thoroughly than could older voluntarist programs.56 In such a world, why would the rationalization of civic relief be unthinkable, especially since it was already expected that recipients would submit themselves to economic discipline in the form of the work ethic? The rationalization of Vancouver’s Relief Department involved the use of practices drawn from both public and private sources and thought to be modern and scientific to govern both relief recipients and relief providers.

Chapter 4 explores the economic relationships through which unemployed and unattached transients sought relief in Vancouver. When providing the poor with food, shelter, fuel, and clothing, Vancouver’s Relief Department and charities like the Central City Mission operated much as did service industries. However, faced with a demand for goods, the municipality acted to remove the jobless from the free market of consumption by denying them the choices that come with hard currency. As illustrated above, the money did not go to the poor but to local businesses. For most of the 1930s, married unemployed men and women received their relief in the form of scrip. This enabled them to shop for certain approved commodities — scrip could not be used to purchase alcohol, tobacco, and a host of other products. Businesses, in turn, exchanged the scrip for money at the Relief Department. Single unemployed men who did not own property were given bed and meal tickets. Those who approached private charities like the Central City Mission or the Emergency Refuge were given food and a bed. From both public and private agencies, single transient men could receive clothing.

The records of state and private relief provision are instructive in several respects. First, pace Vancouver Mayor McGeer, these transactions rarely meant that governments gave money to poor people, which then vanished down the black hole of improvidence. Across the city, firms clamoured to get their share of relief money, hoping to translate some of the money spent on the unemployed into profit. This form of exchange, intended to remove single unemployed men from the market in order to control them and keep them under surveillance, actually increased government spending on administration. Second, the primary focus of department officials was all too often the bottom line. They used moral and often explicitly humanitarian arguments to publicly explain and justify relief policies. Nonetheless, at the end of the day, administrators of every ilk discussed relief in terms of dollars and cents. It was in these terms that its value was determined. Such policy determinations rarely took into consideration issues related to quality of life. The jobless had a right to relief, but little else. Their own ideas about relief provision — what they needed and how they should receive it — commonly met with blanket rejection. Provision thus centred on how to provide food and shelter cheaply and efficiently, all the while enabling a more thorough form of investigation. These goals were to be met by limiting control of the unemployed over their consumption. The market had failed them. Now, it would be denied to them as well.

In the face of such opposition, Vancouver’s Communists became the most ardent defenders of the right of poor people to freely choose what and how to consume. Through the organ of the Unemployed Worker, not to mention countless delegations and demonstrations, Communists contested the specific conditions of the relief exchange; their goal was to remove relief provision from the market altogether. For these men and women, each decision by City Council, each Relief Department regulation, each subsection of each policy document like Mundy’s “Special Instructions to Visitors” stood in the way of a genuine relief effort. “The militant unemployed workers must prepare a counter offensive,” explained one radical. “The law that says, thou shalt not eat in this land whose rivers are teeming with fish, whose elevators are choking with grain, whose grazing lands are alive with live stock, whose warehouses are glutted with boots and shoes, clothes and food, that law must and will be broken.” 57 Interestingly, in their campaign to increase relief rates and to ensure the right of freedom of choice, Communists found unexpected allies in small entrepreneurs such as the proprietors of rooming houses and restaurants. This uneasy alliance reveals the market relations that formed the basis of the relief industry.

Chapter 5 explores the relief camps organized by the government of Premier Simon Fraser Tolmie. Without question, when we think of work relief during the 1930s, the term “boondoggle” comes to mind. Mayor McGeer was certainly not alone in suggesting that work programs for the unemployed were worthless, but this idea, heard across the political spectrum, was misguided in that it failed to recognize that work relief projects increased the property value of both the City and the Province. The former, to highlight but one project, ended the decade with a revenue-generating golf course, while the latter had roads valued at more than $1 million. The development of the camp system also allowed for the primitive accumulation of state forms. In Marx’s use of the term, primitive (or original) accumulation referred to the practices through which the preconditions of capitalism were forged: namely, the separation of people from the land and from access to the means of production, rendering them propertyless and obliged to work for wages.58 “Primitive accumulation,” he wryly noted, “plays approximately the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology.” 59 The process of primitive accumulation did not end with the solidification of capitalism, however. Instead, the concept can help us to understand subsequent processes of economic and state formation.

In the 1930s, provincial and federal intervention in the lives of the unemployed through the creation of the work camp system helped prepare the way for the generalization of Fordism across Canada by — in perfect Fordist fashion — developing a network of roads and airports to facilitate the transportation of commodities. The park-building strategy of provincial politicians looked to a future in which tourism would generate much economic value. Boxcar tourists would, in this scheme, craft cultural experiences for tourists of the self-supporting variety.60 Along with property creation and development came a trained labour force: to facilitate these hundreds of thousands of acts of production, governments gave work to thousands of architects and engineers, civil servants and military officials, gang bosses and skilled tradesmen across Canada. Such a large-scale relief program also dictated the creation and expansion of administrative practices and institutions designed to govern the jobless, paving the way for the state interventions of the 1940s and 1950s. That the Japanese could be unjustly interned during the Second World War is no surprise to those familiar with Canada’s long history of denying the rights of citizenship to subordinate groups.61 That such a campaign could happen so quickly and efficiently was testimony to the camp system brought into being a decade before to house unemployed men. Through the provision of relief, then, new forms of governance — financial, administrative, and disciplinary in nature — were created, enabling the socialization of Fordism on a mass scale via the welfare/security state that began with the outbreak of war.

While I want to draw attention to the economic value produced by work relief programs, it should be noted that the essence of work relief — that which separated it from wage work — was political in nature, rooted in the distinction between free and unfree labour. When men entered into the production side of the relief industry, they did not find themselves in a wholly alien world. As we have seen, men in the city performed many of the same tasks that were assigned to the municipality’s outdoor workers: building and improving parks, roads, and sewers. For their part, jobless men sent to camp may have found themselves living in the same shacks, eating food from the same cook, and listening to the orders of the same foreman as when they had logged for wages. In other words, if we strip away the label of “work relief,” we find thousands of men in situations structurally identical in many respects to those of the everyday world of waged employment.

It was precisely this identity between past and present, however, which brought about the host of campaigns to oppose the labour camps. The most radical challenge to work relief came from Communist-organized movements of transient men, who sought to eradicate the political distinction between waged and relief work. The latter, they argued, was forced, sweated labour, not because of the work performed but because of the legal relationships that governed their labour. Instead, they claimed the rights and entitlements of wage workers: namely, a genuine wage and the right to collective representation in the form of a union. The Depression produced a living contradiction, the “unemployed worker” who worked for a living. The oppositional movement that grew out of the camp system pledged not to rest until this contradiction had been resolved.

Foucault / Kracauer / Adorno

Before concluding, I will briefly outline the relationship I have forged between Michel Foucault and two individuals associated with critical theory in its original incarnation, Siegfried Kracauer and Theodor Adorno. Many of the conceptual questions that guide my interpretation were already asked, if not wholly answered, shortly after the symbolic moment of the genesis of the crisis, the Wall Street crash of October 1929. Kracauer’s The Salaried Masses, initially serialized in the Frankfurter Zeitung’s feuilleton in 1929 before appearing in book form in 1930, traversed the entire surface of white-collar life in Berlin.62 A troika of beautifully constructed vignettes that take place in a Labour Court, a nightclub, and a train introduce Kracauer’s book. Together, they interact as an inescapably engaging comment on how office and sales girls negotiated the ever-moving dialectic among men and women of different classes, in which sexual, gender, and class relations truly mutually constituted one another. Kracauer’s attention to detail and his willingness to say what was (and remains) in most contexts unsayable made each “thought-image” a powerful statement indeed.63 Male clerks, faced with the increasingly powerful cult of youth, employed hair dyes to reinvigorate their appearance, ending up facilitating their abstracted alienation by such acts of individual stylistic non-obsolescence.64 Another white-collar man rigidly obsessed with a wholly rationalized courtship through correspondence served as evidence of “the insanity with which business principles here penetrate a field where they have no place,” providing a “straitjacket” for both the letters themselves and the feelings they were planned and written to express.65 After reading Kracauer’s book, Walter Benjamin bestowed upon him a wonderful complimentary characterization, “a ragpicker at daybreak.” 66

The school of analysis inaugurated by Kracauer was continued in many respects by Adorno, Benjamin, and Horkheimer, among others. In particular, this account owes many debts to Adorno’s work from 1937 to 1947, eleven of his years in exile in America. The Case of Wagner; his research on radio in New York, including his essay “On Popular Music”; his encounter with the Hollywood horrors of Los Angeles in Minima Moralia; and the now famous Dialectic of Enlightenment, written with Max Horkheimer: each of these writings has inspired much wonderful intellectual work. For the North American market segment known as popular music, David Jenemann’s discussion of the National Broadcasting Company’s attempt to provide Musical Leadership over the airwaves and Eric Lott’s note-perfect essay on The Carpenters employ Adorno’s ideas about fetishism and regression to brilliant, if often disturbing, ends.67 More indirectly, Michael Denning’s Cover Stories and Mechanic Accents, and Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance can be considered within Adorno’s ambit, as can hundreds of other works, via the postmodern reworking of Adorno by Fredric Jameson over the past forty years.68 In this group, Ariel Dorfman’s analysis of “the infantilization of the adult reader” via the rationalization of knowledge production in Reader’s Digest deserves special attention.69 Above all, I appreciate Adorno’s unending ability to demonstrate in and through his writing the truth value of dialectical methods, it being understood, of course, that one of the truths he offers is the fact that non-dialectical methods have their own truth value.70

In an interview published in 1983, Foucault suggested that his early work would have possessed a different character had he been exposed to the work of the Frankfurt School.71 As Foucault acknowledged, “I then understood that the representatives of the Frankfurt School had tried, earlier than I, to say things I had also been trying to say for years.”72 He even imagined an alternative history in which he would have encountered the Frankfurt School when young and would “have been so captivated by them that I wouldn’t have done anything else but comment on them.” 73 Nonetheless, Foucault remained critical of what he saw as the humanism of the Frankfurt School in its reliance on a belief in the possibility of liberating identity, suggesting that he was unfamiliar with Adorno’s writings on identity and non-identity. Nor does he appear aware of the Frankfurt School’s detailed empirical studies in the areas of mass culture, the authoritarian personality, social science research methods, and so on. Most important, Foucault appears to have been unaware of Adorno’s writings on music: here, more than on any other terrain, they could have conversed productively for hours on end.74

I count myself lucky to follow in the footsteps of the thoughtful, respectful (if ultimately negative) analytical assessments of Foucault’s writings offered by Dews, Neil Brenner, David Garland, Kate Soper, Pieter Spierenburg, and Paul Paolucci, among others.75 One of the most important lessons I learned from E.P. Thompson is that “Marx is on our side; we are not on the side of Marx.” 76 I think the same of Foucault. Also, as a historian of the 1930s, I believe that there are clearly enough productive points of contact between Adorno and Foucault as to warrant rereading them together, in the hopes of creating a new hybrid. In many respects, Adorno did for mass culture in the twentieth century what Foucault did for disciplinary institutions in the nineteenth, partly through his concept of governmentality.77 Both were concerned with the “human sciences”: psychology and social sciences are particularly fruitful areas of overlap. Both understood the making of power-knowledge, even if Adorno was to focus on the further rationalization of these units through their commodification.78

In arguing for the complementarity of Foucault and Adorno, I am mindful of the many areas of the former’s complex and multi-faceted oeuvre in which critical theorists have identified analytic problems. Among these are Foucault’s framing of power as if it possessed human characteristics and his tendency to depict resistance as the opposite reflection of power, spontaneous rather than planned, chaotic rather than strategic. Certainly Foucault’s minimal textual engagement with Marxisms and feminisms, as well as his occasional outbursts of knee-jerk hostile reaction to movements associated with these theoretical orientations, compromised his project. Finally, for historians serious about their craft and the difficult negotiations it entails, Foucault’s philosophic mode of presentation — which all too often confuses actually existing social relations in contexts bound by time and space with an ideal-type efficient and effective model of the workings of power — while illustrative and stimulating, too often contains questionable if not crude characterizations of the historical context and extant evidence.

Nonetheless, as the following pages reveal, the insights that can be drawn from Foucault and Adorno are productive of a materialist reassessment of “relief.” Combined with a Thompsonian appreciation of the human agency that created the beggar’s homeland, this theoretical ensemble animates my study of Vancouver as a “mecca of the surplus” in the early years of the Great Depression. In what amounts to a final articulation of difference from conventional historiography, I attempt to write the history and the theory of the making of this mecca simultaneously. Rather than opt, as most historians do, for a separate articulation of conceptualization (which usually introduces and then concludes a study) and empirical narrative (evidence-based and seemingly untouched by analytic concepts, constituting the substantive body of most historical texts), I instead regularly punctuate my outline of historical developments with theoretical introductions and interludes that flow logically from my reading of the archives or that usefully preface my engagement with evidence. I do this for two reasons: first, because it makes a particular kind of sense, and second, because my hope is that it will suggest the possibilities of new kinds of historical practice in which theory and evidence are not separate and unequal realms but part of an indivisible analytic totality.


A Strike, a Conference, and a Riot

Articles may not be exchanged. — We are forgetting how to give presents. Violation of the exchange principle has something nonsensical and implausible about it; here and there even children eye the giver suspiciously, as if the gift were merely a trick to sell them brushes or soap. Instead we have charity, administered beneficence, the planned plastering-over of society’s visible sores. In its organized operations there is no longer room for human impulses, indeed, the gift is necessarily accompanied by humiliation through its distribution, its just allocation, in short through treatment of the recipient as an object. Even private giving of presents has degenerated to a social function exercised with rational bad grace, careful adherence to the prescribed budget, sceptical appraisal of the other and the least possible effort.

Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia:
Reflections from a Damaged Life

The bold type of the December 1929 headline in the Daily Province leaped off the page: “Vancouver Millionaire Pays Monthly Allowance to Knight of the Road.”2 For all those who dreamt of the day of reckoning, when wealth would be redistributed from those who owned it to those who needed it, this report raised hopes only to cruelly dash them. “Somewhere on the continent,” explained a Province newsie, “is a tramp with the wanderlust that every month can present himself at any bank on the continent and receive an allowance which will continue as long as he lives.” Sadly, this was not a universal social program but a private contractual arrangement between two individuals: the rest of North America’s wanderers would have to find their own millionaire. The nameless tramp’s benefactor was Major-General A.D. McRae, a successful businessman and one of British Columbia’s most powerful political figures in the interwar years. McRae’s government service came in many forms: he had acted as quartermaster-general for Canadian forces overseas during the war and would return home to become a member of Parliament and senator in turn. He even experimented with third-party movements as one of the founders of the short-lived Provincial Party. Yet his crowning achievement — if we can call it that — would come in 1930, the year after the publication of this story, when the Conservative Party machine he built secured for R.B. Bennett the office of prime minister.3 But before McRae could become king-maker (by unmaking Mackenzie King), he first had to cheat death on a long and lonely road.

On an automobile trip through the Rockies, McRae noticed a tramp, “unshaven, ragged, tired and dishevelled,” on the side of the road and offered the “ne’er-do-well” a lift, which he “gladly accepted.” After motoring a while, the car suddenly plunged into a ditch and flipped over. The tramp extricated himself without serious injury, but the general was helpless, pinned beneath the automobile. Then, “with almost superhuman effort,” the tramp managed to lift the car by himself, free McRae, and administer first aid.4 The tramp as Good Samaritan and the millionaire as needy victim: we do not come across this type of story very often. Yet the newsie’s account does not allow us to linger long over this nameless itinerant’s selfless act. Instead, we are put in McRae’s shoes and asked to sort through the ethical questions involved in recognizing this heroism. “How to reward the tramp was the problem,” the reporter observed. “If he was given a large sum of money it would be of no permanent benefit.” The tramp’s thoughts on his new-found “cash allowance” were not recorded, although it was implied that he was grateful for this “token of General McRae’s thanks.”5

In McRae’s decision to redeem his life with a reward that regulated its recipient, we can discern more than a hint of what Adorno characterized as the “sceptical appraisal of the other.” From the few details available to us, it appears that the tramp acted in the immediacy of the moment — a conjuncture of time and space that made irrelevant customary lines of authority and in which he alone possessed the power to save life or allow death — without any rational consideration of the potential economic worth of his actions. He did not demand that McRae promise to make him rich or even give him a job. In fact, he did not seek anything of “permanent benefit” before acting. In contrast, McRae’s “reward” betrayed a careful calculus, “a just allocation” that figured in the flawed and essentially illiberal character of the “Knight of the Road” to devise the form of the gift, a trust fund that instructed while it rewarded (or was it the other way around?). Despite his heroism, this nameless tramp wound up in the same place as would hundreds of thousands of his brethren during the 1930s — on the receiving end of rationalized social relationships that created value and regulated behaviour. Even the most Romantic of stories — the homeless nomad, more accustomed to life in the jungle than civilized society, who “with almost superhuman effort” generously comes to the aid of those more fortunate than he — contains, it seems, the seeds of objectification.

For the moment, however, I prefer to stay with the mildly Nietzschean characterization of the tramp’s “almost superhuman effort.” After all, the possibility exists that if the tramp had not acted as he did, Canadians could have ended up with five more years of “King and Chaos”! More to the point, this tale will probably strike Marxists (and a few others) as raw material perfectly suited to conveying Walter Benjamin’s sense of historical materialism as a method that “appropriates a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.” Indeed, the very notion of the tramp as forerunner to the pulp fiction superhero, somehow able to accomplish what lay beyond the ken of most, seems to “brush” this history of objectification “against the grain” on its own accord, demanding that this irreducible moment of subjectivity be recognized.6

The following chapter will provide a proper account of the jungles, this as yet mythical “homeland” for the homeless. Here, we consider the winter of 1929–30 — now generally regarded as the opening of the Great Depression — in order to argue for the value of an anarchist interpretation of the struggles over relief provision in the city. In this context, anarchism’s insistence on exploitation and oppression as constituent elements of the liberal-democratic polity as well as on the possibilities of effective collective action helps us understand the ways in which these thousands of itinerants exerted pressure, set limits, shaped conduct, and moved from the margins to the centre (to choose phrases closely associated with agency and determination), all by making the smooth and orderly functioning of relief government both impractical in its current form and, as we will see, impossible in its next incarnation as well.

Strikes, public conferences, and riots are classical set pieces in the historiography of the Great Depression, and in December 1929 and January 1930, Vancouver was home to them all: an abortive strike of relief workers, a public conference of notables (and the not-so-notable) on the subject of unemployment, and a substantial number of public demonstrations, one of which ended in riotous circumstances.7 Over these two months, thousands of nameless, faceless men from the world over arrived in Vancouver just in time to find and place themselves in the midst of class war — the “state of emergency” that Benjamin argued “is not the exception but the rule.”8 In this period, the tripartite figure of the transient — as the thousands of itinerant individuals who walked Vancouver’s streets in search of sustenance or something else, as the masses conjured up by administrators and politicians in attempting to govern those thought to resist governance, and as the backbone of a Communist-led movement that set its sights on dismantling the social relations that divided citizen from outsider — dominated the public sphere, both initiating a political debate and forcing changes in the substance of that debate. Vancouver’s crisis, in other words, did not follow directly from the crash of stock markets but rather emerged from the countless decisions, individual and collective, that led thousands of migrant workers to congregate in that city that winter. Over the course of two months, the mass need for resources literally embodied in a mobile international proletariat destabilized and made obsolete the long-established local practices of governmentality grouped together under the name of “relief.” The obligations that came with satisfying the insistent daily demands of this seemingly inexhaustible mass of itinerant bodies for food and drink, shelter, and clothing overwhelmed the administrative capacities of the Relief Department to the extent that the long-standing mandate to investigate each applicant was discarded almost entirely. This breakdown of discipline would eventually cause officials to seek out solutions in the field of scientific management, reconstructing bit by bit the foundational practices of relief administration, investigation, and provision. In this way, the Relief Department’s traditional way of doing business was a significant casualty of the itinerant phenomenon of these two months.

What’s more, the itinerant invasion profoundly shaped the broader polity. Under the auspices of the Communist-led Vancouver Unemployed Workers’ Organization (VUWO), thousands assembled to employ the time-honoured tactics of street demonstrations and parades in a quest to secure cash relief at union rates for all, whatever their place of origin. In so doing, many personally witnessed, if not directly felt, the exercise of state coercive practices, leading them to engage Police Department officials in a battle over the rights of freedom of speech and assembly, and thereby prompting the jobless movement to publicly articulate economic and political challenges, the rights of citizens and the rights of workers. The VUWO’S rejection of practices that divided the working class into the deserving and the undeserving would, over these two months, prompt a series of political realignments, culminating in a civic conference intended by officials to publicly enact the creation of “community” consensus on economic issues. There, caught up in the demands of its role as stage manager of the public rituals of civic hegemony, Vancouver became the first municipality in North America (and possibly the only one) to endorse, even in a quasi-official venue, the principle of non-contributory unemployment insurance. This was a program to make capital responsible for the cost of relieving poverty, and its most devout local advocates were members of the Communist Party.9 More than five years before the idea of the On-to-Ottawa Trek entered some anonymous itinerant’s head, Vancouver had already unknowingly agreed to the Relief Camp Workers’ Union’s central demand. In these ways, the migrant unemployed made their very existence a crisis that undermined the solidity of well-established practices of rule.

Fall 1929: A Tragedy

An army of occupation from the prairies is drifting into Vancouver at the rate of several hundreds a month. It is an army equipped mostly with large bank accounts and household baggage and its coming will help to swell the sum total of Vancouver’s prosperity.… Some of the invaders, it is true, are arriving practically penniless, following a rainbow and hoping to find the fabled pot of gold in Vancouver. Others, however, and these are believed to be the majority, have already found the pot of gold in the harvest fields of the prairies, and are coming to spend the rest of their lives at ease. Still others, having gathered a comfortable stake, bring their capital with the object of starting business here.

Vancouver Sun, 22 October 1929

A city is like the human body. Unless the organs can function freely, and the blood circulate without restraint, an unhealthy condition is produced in the system which leads to lower vitality, lethargy and decay.… Every ratepayer in the city is vitally interested in the commercial activity, the payrolls and the industries of Vancouver. Every public building which goes up in the city speeds up business by so much, and puts gold into the arteries of the city’s community life.

Vancouver Sun, 9 December 1929

The years preceding the New York stock market crash of 29 October 1929, or Black Tuesday, as it became known, witnessed a record-setting surge of economic growth on Canada’s “Left Coast.” “It was the greatest boom that Vancouver had yet known,” Margaret Ormsby wrote in 1958: “The spirit of the city was still, as it had been at the beginning, predominantly materialistic. An eager, grasping, acquisitive community, it squandered its own resources of natural beauty, all the time extending its economic power until it held most of the province in fee.”10 As Ormsby’s antimodern interpretation makes clear, this concentration of capitalist power in the city largely depended upon the commodification of natural resources and of common unskilled labour throughout British Columbia. In practical terms, casual employment and labour mobility entailed the spatial separation of production and reproduction during this period of the life cycle: it was expected (and often necessary) that these men, when not needed for production in the hinterland, would reproduce their labour elsewhere, in urban centres and on homesteads across Canada, even in other countries.11

Throughout this period, the leading ideologue of Vancouver’s pro-growth movement was Robert Cromie, publisher and editor of the Vancouver Sun. Under Cromie’s stewardship, each issue of the Sun helped readers to fill their minds with the minutiae of the good life of the marketplace. The front pages, the business pages, the real estate pages, the society pages, even the want ads — all made visible the glorious machinery of the capitalist social formation. Each weekend, the Sun featured a different industry, explaining how each helped the “community” by providing products for citizens to consume and by increasing British Columbia’s total wealth. News coverage of the business world glorified the “cult of free enterprise and money-making,” observes historian Paul Rutherford; stories “thrilled with a sense of the drama and excitement and significance of the little doings of these worlds, never troubling to criticize or question.”12

A month before the market crash, Cromie’s lead editorial proclaimed, “Vancouver Must Look Ahead.” He scolded local politicians for their failure to expand storage facilities on the local waterfront to facilitate international trade, particularly with the Pacific Rim. “In planning expenditures,” Cromie wrote, “Vancouver’s public bodies forget that Vancouver’s progress is not temporary, but continuous.… If periods of national or international depression come, they can only affect Vancouver for short periods, because our prosperity must continue as long as our resources continue and as long as development in trade continues on the Pacific.”13 Growth, development, progress — all served as keywords of the modern liberal press, and Cromie explicitly yoked them to a Fordist vision of class formation. In an editorial lauding Henry Ford’s decision to pay seven dollars a day to auto workers, the Sun explained, “Higher wages mean a greater buying power, a wider market, greater absorption of all commodities, including that which the men themselves produce.… More wages mean more demand, more prosperity.”14 This advocacy of Fordism left several things unsaid: the package of “higher wages” and “more prosperity” also meant no unions, managerial control over all aspects of production, and various programs designed to Americanize immigrants and to reform the lives of workers and their families outside the workplace.15 With each turn of the page, Cromie’s Sun articulated the identity of the interests of the “community” and those of industry.

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